Sword Art Online: Episode 21

Recap: Asuna attempts to make her own escape as Kirito and Leafa reach the roots of Yggdrasil.

Iro’s Thoughts:
As seems to be the theme this week among several shows, not a lot actually happens this week, though SAO finally returns to its actual plot. Kirito and Leafa finally reach Arun, the city at the base of Yggdrasil (and perhaps the prettiest environment we’ve seen the entire run), skipping the lengthy interlude in the caves that I complained about last time. It remains to be seen if they’ll stick it back in somewhere, since we still have four episodes to fill, but I doubt they’ll actually have time. In short, they fall under Yggdrasil where all the super powerful monsters are, and accidentally complete an endgame quest to get the one-of-a-kind super weapon Excalibur. Typical RPG fare, though it’s yet another heaping helping of the series’ obsession with making Kirito out to be the ultimate player in everything.

The bulk of this episode is Asuna trying to mount her own escape. She wanders around the facility at the top of Yggdrasil, finding the virtual brains of the people Sugou has captured. For someone who’s supposed to be sneaking, she spends a fair amount of time just standing out in the open, including running full speed in the center of the lane to reach the admin console. But, since we can’t have her actually do things for herself and invalidate Kirito’s quest, Asuna is quickly recaptured by the creepy slug dudes, leading to a highly unnecessary tentacle groping scene. It’s all interspersed with cuts of Kazuto and Suguha visiting Asuna in the hospital – I can see how they were going for the dramatic irony of “she’s just about to log out, and they’re right there!” but it just comes across as really silly instead.

Things get perhaps even more absurd as Leafa literally bursts into tears at realizing her brother doesn’t want to get into her short shorts, resigning herself to a life without incest. Instead, she decides she  wants to get with Kirito, but we all know that’s not going to work out either. At any rate, they reach Yggdrasil, and Yui detects that Asuna is in the area, at which point the credits roll. It’s a weak revelation, since it’s something we already know, but I suppose I’ve seen worse cliffhangers.

Dragonzigg’s Thoughts: Rather surprisingly, I’m going to play the optimist to Iro’s perpetual pessimist here and say this was the best episode of SAO in weeks. (Iro’s note: damning with faint praise) We get some decent little character vignettes, some nice real world talk and Asuna actually gets to do something! OK, so that bit doesn’t end so well, but still, it’s gotta be a step up after spending most of the arc in a cage.

The episode starts incredibly strongly with some gorgeous scenery porn of Arun. The show has always been a looker but this is the first time in my opinion ALO has produced anything as striking as the floating monolith. I love the way the city seems nestled in the crook of the tree, and now we’re much closer it’s possible to appreciate the flowing, elegant design of both Arun and the tree itself, as well as the vast scale of the latter.

One of the things I really found effective in this episode was the extended break back to the ‘real world’, something we haven’t really had a lot of, despite the fact that Kirito is no longer ‘locked in’ to the system. There”s a chance for a little character building, and I like that there’s a nod to some of the real world consequences to the SAO incident in Suguha and Kazuto’s talk about school. In fact, Suguha herself comes off considerably better in this episode – there’s a level of self awareness that wasn’t present before. She’s aware of how messed up her affection for her brother is (unlike some shows) and while that doesn’t excuse the fact it’s an utterly pointless plot element, it does mitigate my distaste slightly. See what a bit of actual empathy for your characters can do!

If there’s a weak point in this episode, it’s the Asuna stuff. I was very excited that she’d finally be doing something after her escape at the end of last week, but as it turns out ‘doing something’ equates to poncing around and getting captured again. There’s a nice ghoulish air to the room full of human brain holograms she stumbles across, bringing a little sci-fi creepiness to the plot, but her near immediate capture just portrays her as weak and incompetent in comparison to the new protagonists. This may be explained in the books (not a valid excuse) but why, considering Kirito kept all of his abilities when he moved over (through bullshit plot manipulation, but still) does Asuna not have hers also? It’s just a bit odd, and while she does manage to grab the mysterious card, her near instant return to her cage is almost comical and further diminishes the character.  And I trust I don’t really need to say anything about her capture other than it’s gross, entirely unnecessary and shamefully exploitative. Why on earth are the scientists using multi-tentacled… things as avatars anyway? It’s a pointless, misogynistic move designed purely to titillate and a black mark on an otherwise well constructed episode.

Aside from that though, I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. It’s got a lot to do with the feeling that we’re back on track, and once again moving towards the clear objective we had all along, free of pointless politicking. When Kirito takes off like a rocket at the end of this episode, there was a palpable sense of excitement I hadn’t felt for a while from SAO. That”s nothing if not an encouraging sign.

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